Interview with Dr. Laura Symul

Dr. Laura Symul is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. She obtained her PhD in computational biology at EPFL in Switzerland. Her interests include menstruation, fertility awareness, and data science. Period and fertility tracking apps have emerged as a monitoring tool for users, but are also shaping the current research on mensuration and women’s health. We talked with Dr. Symul to discuss her menstrual health research, using self-tracked data, and how the field on menstruation is evolving.

Pictured: Dr. Laura Symul

What is your academic background?

My background is in engineering. Quite early, I got interested in how computational methods could be applied to describe and study biological processes, especially biological rhythms. During my PhD, my research focused on understanding the molecular regulation of the circadian clock — our internal 24h time-keeping system.

What is your current research?

I am now interested in a much slower rhythm: the menstrual cycle. I am especially curious to understand how we can define, describe and quantify menstrual health as the conjunction of menstrual symptoms and fertility, reflecting the intricating role of the menstrual cycle on health and quality of life.

Questions such as “who is experiencing which symptoms, when and why?” are driving my research. Menstrual cycle and fertility tracking apps provide scientists with an unprecedented opportunity to look for specific patterns and uncover underlying phenotypes.

How did you get into data science and menstruation as a research topic?

I got into data science by training and into menstruation by passion. I was frustrated to see that most research on the menstrual cycle was done by medical doctors and focused on fertility. I was thirsty to learn more about the development and occurrence of physical and psychological symptoms associated with the menstrual cycle and to get a better explanation on why some people were affected and not others.

What role does data science have in menstrual health research? Particularly what can self-tracked data contribute?

Because the menstrual cycle has been stigmatized for centuries and because women[1] have received negative feedback when sharing about their menstrual health, menstrual symptoms are often under-reported and minimized by health practitioners and patients themselves. Mobile phone apps provide a safe space for users to report their symptoms and investigate which ones actually are related to their menstrual cycle, without the fear of judgement or the risk that reporting these symptoms would back-fire.
Millions of users worldwide track their menstrual cycle and fertility with these apps. This might allow to capture patterns from populations that were not sufficiently represented in “traditional studies”.

Self-tracked data contributes by providing large longitudinal datasets at a daily resolution over long period of time. This data can be messy and dirty because not every user is consistent in their tracking and thus requires careful manipulation before any conclusion can be drawn. Data science contributes by providing methods for the analysis these data and to overcome the challenge of dealing with missing or mis-reported data.

Do you have any advice for researchers thinking about researching menstruation?

Conversations with researchers from various discipline has been the most valuable for my research so far. Getting the opportunity to view a research question from a novel perspective has been very helpful. Menstrual health is a growing field of research that needs the expertise and contribution from a vast pool of talents.

The menstrual cycle triggers strong hormonal changes. These hormones, although their primary role is related to reproduction, have a far larger impact on the human physiology and behavior. I would encourage anyone who is interested in a different topic than menstruation to question their research from a menstrual-cycle perspective: “Could any of my variables or parameters of interest possibly change across the menstrual cycle?”

What are your thoughts on current menstrual health research? Do you think it has evolved?

It is an exciting time for menstrual health research, and it is evolving rapidly. Societal changes and empowerment of women and young girls regarding menstruation have triggered the creation of new online platforms to exchange and discuss progresses in menstrual health research. The increased public awareness has created a demand for more research in this field; from a better understanding and treatment of diseases that are specifically related to the menstrual cycle such as endometriosis or PCOS to requesting the development of new type of birth control method that would be non-hormonal, non-invasive and environmentally friendly.

I have been inspired by scientists, from various disciplines and background, interested in tackling fundamental questions regarding the menstrual cycle and menstrual health. I also get contacted by younger scientists drawn to this field. So, although I am myself pretty new to this field, I am very optimistic about the future of menstrual health research and I encourage every person with a menstrual cycle to make sure their voices are heard, and their issues addressed by scientific research.

[1] Used as a shortcut for “people experiencing menstruation”

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